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Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

The crux of Frank Lloyd Wright’s reputation lies in just how much you can believe of the romantic idealist as opposed to self-serving bastard

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Fullcoverflw

Source: Takahiro Suganuma

Daftly certified ‘best all-time work of American architecture’, Fallingwater enjoys the escape velocity to leave architectural discourse altogether. Whether in Lego blocks or cover shots, that magical conjugation of building and landscape floats forever on the money. But since the Frank Lloyd Wright story is epic, romantic, and soused in the nitroglycerine of genius, generations of architectural students have been dissuaded from studying him altogether; Wright becoming a chimera within novellas, doyen of public service broadcasting or even the host of ghost stories; certainly the stuff of gift shops.

The Robie House and Imperial Hotel were early hits, but Fallingwater was Wright’s Rumours; a melodious opus to belie any Sisyphean struggle, in myth sketched out in just two hours with the client at the gate. And it wasn’t a happy house, with Liliane Kaufmann overdosing in 1952 in an atmosphere altogether more Scott Fitzgerald than Henry David Thoreau. The organic whole was a fiction, even then.

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19drvvmr9gm5zjpg

Scale model of Broadacre City, an urban or suburban development concept proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright throughout most of his lifetime.

Wright’s language is certainly ever corny. Pompous narcissist, never happier than pontificating, sermonising (both father and grandfather were preachers) and ever hypocritical. He was an evangelist for the ‘organic’ somehow never swayed by organic forces other than his own; a tyrant and a god. Life at Taliesin is possibly related more reliably by those who were not actually converts to the fellowship (TC Boyle’s The Women is particularly riveting). Hence critics tend to appreciate him more tangibly at arms-length, even if, as Vincent Scully suggests, not knowing your Wright might be as bad as the writer not knowing their Turgenev.

So what is it, this Mona Lisa quality that Fallingwater has; the effortless in concert with the strenuous? Behind the object, it’s a progression; a final push away from Palladio. Further, maybe it’s in the nature of materials for concrete to cantilever, and wasn’t it about time for Americans to reconcile the haut bourgeois house to the beauties of God’s country on which it sat? Here, both are done in extremis.

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16gettyimages 480014169

Source: Eliot Elisofen / Getty Images

The Johnson Wax building in Racine, Wisconsin (1936-39), with its dendriform columns, set the benchmark for work spaces

Wright’s client, Edgar J Kaufmann, made his money in department stores. His son, Edgar Jr, became an apprentice at Taliesin. In 1934, making a model of Broadacre City, he persuaded his father to contribute funding. Soon father was before the master, and commissioned both a (rather claustrophobic) office interior in Pittsburgh and his country retreat.

The ‘music of the stream’ was inspiration to Wright. Building above it meant the house was expensive. Kaufmann’s people didn’t trust the engineering, neither did the builder, and post-tensioning was still an issue into the 21st century. Technically, running water and steel-reinforced concrete are not exactly the most durable combination of materials. Neither was the house entirely physiologically comfortable, the constant sound of running water intrusive, but the Kaufmanns further commissioned the guest house, gate lodge and farm cottage until choosing Wright disciple, Richard Neutra, for the desert house near Palm Springs.

Compositionally, Scully put Fallingwater on the same page as Neutra’s Health House (it’s 10 years older). The juxtaposition is startling, but Wright cantilevered and (late in the design) slightly rounded the edges of his horizontal planes for the appearance of mass. Jencks has evoked Beethoven; the balconies of Fallingwater mirroring still or frozen ponds, but overall the effect echoed the contrast Wright saw in his beloved Japanese prints – prints that saved his bacon when there was none on the table. If you squint, you can spot figures wearing kimonos.

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Frank lloyd wright cars gear patrol ambiance 21

Source: The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York

Frank Lloyd and Olgivanna Wright in his 1937 AC roadster at Taliesin West in 1948

The pale ochre colour matched the back of a fallen rhododendron leaf. Steel was painted Cherokee red to remind us of iron ore (or maybe war paint) as it always was. The fireplace returned us to a real cavern, but the planning is marvellously deft amid the shunting of wall and plane.

Wright’s mother prophesied his genius before he was born. The intensity of her relationship with him (and the distance and harshness of his father) must have precipitated his disastrous temperament. Alvar Aalto concluded that ‘Taliesin was built on c**t’. For Wright, his sex drive was a curse.

He was driven (and reckless) to the point where he removed the rear window of his Lincoln Continental, and remained so to the point he ill-advisedly took on four hundred commissions after the age of 80. The scandals, leaving his wife and six children for his neighbour (and Europe) in Chicago in 1909; the tragedies (killer servants, fires) at Taliesin; the second marriage to society belle and ‘real hell on wheels’ Miriam Noel, an erratic bohemian clairvoyant addicted to morphine; or even the third marriage to ‘high priestess’ Olgivanna; all could have been the end. He was at fault most of the time.

Wright and Olga had been on the run in their Cadillac – Bonnie and Clyde style – when they took cover in a lakeside shack under the name Richardson to pen his self-valedictory autobiography in 1932. But they were soon found out and jailed in connection with marital troubles. If that was the lowest ebb of the leanest years, Fallingwater, Johnson Wax and the Sturges House all came from that pit of despair and, of course, the success of that autobiography. 

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Source: 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ

Plan of Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania (1935-37)

Taliesin is easily, perhaps lazily, seen as a cult. Certainly it represents the home of Wright’s self-belief. Olga had Gurdjieff, fountain of esoteric awakening and stage diving, as inspiration. Latterly they functioned together as benevolent dictators. All in all, the studio where Wright’s eraser was ‘the most important instrument of the architectural design’ produced 1,000 designs and 500 buildings.

Mean with cash, the locals were unimpressed. Even Philip Johnson referred to the young apprentices as ‘slave labour’. Yet there are still plenty of acolytes anxious to put the record straight, to put it all down to idiosyncrasy; that predilection for finery without paying the bills; apprentices peeling the onions and frying the potatoes while paying for the privilege.

As a means of production, it was horrible, but in his demonstrativeness, Wright remains archetypal father of the design studio. His protégés grew their hair, they wore cloaks. My own tutor, long ago on arrival at Taliesin, was asked to fashion his dining wear from a sheet. 

Time magazine cover

Time magazine cover

Wright graced the cover of Time magazine, 17 January 1938

Wright used Kaufmann’s cash to build Taliesin West. In a classic photograph, they sit with a giant Welsh harp in the background, as soulmates. Stylistically, Wright produced his poor man’s Fallingwater, the Pew House, along with more aggressive cantilevering in the Affleck and Sturges Houses before the unbuilt Eaglefeather became a monument to hubris. 

But then there’s those great Usonians; in radical open-plan ranch style, without servants. The crux of Frank Lloyd Wright’s reputation lies in just how much you can believe of the romantic idealist as opposed to self-serving bastard. Wright’s ‘organic’ essentially assaulted the academicism of the classic; an establishment that set itself apart from nature in all senses. When, in May 1939, he hit London with Usonia, his audience – presumably complacent in their compromised Garden Cities – might have been alarmed, but they would be cowering in the phoney war within six months. He had a point.

But just as he assumed that heroic pose for the first half of the American century, Wright became decidedly eccentric by the second. Post Second World War, and the possibility of a non-patriarchal world, Frank Lloyd Wright suddenly achieved dowager status, and – Guggenheim-sponsored skirmish notwithstanding – gently drifted into popular mythology.

Illustration

Illustration by Takahiro Suganuma